What the surprisingly radical ‘Scandal’ says about race and politics

Kerry Washington, Deliver Commencement Address GWU

Its soapy, pulpy packaging has enabled the show to tackle issues few others have dared.

 

BY TIM JONES-YELVINGTON

For a show infamous for its breakneck pacing and plot twists, last Thursday’s season finale of Scandal was remarkably short on cliffhangers. But its most significant unresolved story also provided its most striking moment: “gladiator” Harrison Wright, played by Columbus Short, ended the season (and possibly, his run on the show) with a gun to his head, wielded on behalf of the season’s villain Rowan Pope, the show’s only other major African-American male character.

“Oh, to be young, gifted and black,” Rowan intoned, summoning Nina Simone’s Civil Rights Movement classic with a mixture of irony, reverence and fatalism. The scene carried added meta-fictional weight due to Short’s legal troubles, as the actor was recently charged with felony battery and accused of domestic violence. The results were the type of unfortunate headlines that for some may reinforce racist stereotypes of black male misogyny and criminality. 

For a show that few take seriously, Scandal has had some remarkably serious things to say about race and politics. In fact, I’d argue that its soapy, pulpy packaging and rejection of “quality” (as defined by cable prestige shows) has enabled the show to tackle issues few others have dared.

New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum agrees. “Because Scandal is so playful, and is unafraid to be ridiculous, it has access to emotional colors that rarely show up in [a] universe whose aesthetics insist that we take it seriously,” Nussbaum wrote in a review last year. “In its lunatic way, [it] may have more to say about Washington ambition.”

Ambition, specifically for political power, is usually the focus when people talk about Scandal. On the blog Racialicious, Jordan St. John said, “If there is anything that Scandal shows, it is that pretty much everyone is looking out for their own interests and their own power.” But less attention has been given to the elaborate stories the characters tell themselves to justify this pursuit.

It was at the midpoint of the second season that I realized just what the show was up to. In a flashback, future Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene is convincing campaign manager Olivia Pope to rig the presidential election in favor of their employer, Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant. “People like Fitz,” he says, “They go down in history. People like us, we create the history. We run this world so he can lead it.”

In “people like us,” I heard him to mean what I like to call the show’s mighty triumvirate of the marginalized: Olivia, Cyrus, and first lady Mellie Grant. The “black woman,” the “queen” and the “bitch,” they access power behind the scenes—doing the “dirty work” that keeps the president’s hands clean.

The price of their power is that their job becomes maintaining Fitz’s innocence (e.g. his privilege, the unearned nature of which the election fraud storyline made literal). Fitz, a character whose white maleness is so generic, the Onion A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya recently called him “a general stand-in for the patriarchy.” Later, when he becomes aware of the rigged voting, his team’s new mission becomes legitimizing his power by helping him win reelection fairly.

One of Scandal‘s central themes is the narratives marginalized folks concoct to justify, and even idealize, our complicity in the system that marginalizes us. For Liv, it’s the myth of the white hat, that her work as a fixer is heroic. For Cyrus, it’s an idealized abstraction called “the republic.” Initially, Mellie’s ambition seemed the most naked, but time has revealed her Achilles Heel in her emotional need and investment in patriarchal norms. 

But this season has seen the unraveling of each of these narratives. Mellie’s façade crumbled with the revelation she’d been raped. Cyrus paid the cost for his crimes when he lost the love of his life. Olivia’s band of misfits—which in addition to Harrison, includes a survivor of intimate partner violence, and a traumatized Latino soldier—came apart at the seams, while for the first time, she explicitly questioned whether she’s anything more than “the help.”

Into this picture comes Rowan, who is arguably the most honest and least deluded of this lot. He seemingly pursues power for the sake of power (“once command, always command”). And although that power is ostensibly for “protecting the republic,” he also uses it to further personal agendas and vendettas, murdering his ex-wife’s lover, manipulating his daughter into abandoning her post and reeking near-biblical vengeance on the President.

Most importantly, it’s Rowan who denies Fitz the legitimacy he so desires.

On the idea of being “gifted, young and black,” what does it say about 21st century race relations, that a black man can only access authentic power by killing people on behalf of the State? And are all idealists who work within the system compromised, co-opted? Is the gun pointed at Harrison’s head directed by Rowan—or by America?

In a political era that began with the promise/myth of a “post-racial” U.S.A., Scandal‘s cynicism comes across as surprisingly radical.

Tim “TinTim” Jones-Yelvington is a Chicago author, multimedia performance artist and nightlife personality. 

Photo via Glyn Lowe Photoworks/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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